climate change lifestyle

Lifestyle change vs System change

A lot of the environmental movement, especially at the shallow end, is preoccupied with lifestyle changes. You know the kind of thing I mean – the top tips for reducing your plastic use or shrinking your carbon footprint. Go vegan. Get a bike. They’re often framed as sacrifices, things we have to ‘give up’ for the sake of the environment, though that’s often in the media reporting of environmentalism than the green movement itself.

These personal actions are all well and good, but there’s always a lingering question over how much difference they can make. The climate emergency is bigger than the sum of all our lifestyle choices. It’s embedded in fossil fuel use, in extractive models of industry, in consumer capitalism and its drive for economic growth. Individual action doesn’t challenge those bigger problems, and the focus on personal action lets the real culprits off the hook.

I’ve written about this many times, because I’m convinced there’s no either/or choice in play. (See my six reasons to take personal action here, or this book on what makes the biggest difference) I wanted to mention it again because the UNEP’s annual Emissions Gap report includes a chapter on lifestyle change for the first time this year. It’s written by Climate Outreach and they take a similar view to mine – that lifestyle change and system change go together, and that those with the biggest carbon footprints need to pay the most attention to lifestyle choices.

If you’re in the world’s richest 10%, you need to cut your carbon footprint by 90% to play your part in the global emergency of climate change. I am in that top 10% myself, and the majority of this blog’s readers will be too. As I’ve discovered, there’s only so far you can reduce your personal emissions before you bump into systemic challenges you can’t change on your own, so change needs to happen at different levels at once, supporting and reinforcing each other.

Here’s a video summary from Climate Outreach. Pass it on.


  1. My wife and I are decidedly not in the top economic 10%, and we never have been. We have deliberately minimized our income, lived as simply as possible, consumed as little as possible, traveled as little as possible and only by surface transportation, and we concentrate our political activity on local government and institutions.

    We haven’t given up anything because we never had anything to give up. We eschew cell phones, television, private automobiles and popular entertainment. We live our principles and find our life satisfying and fulfilling in every way. We are both in our 70s and both healthy and thriving, despite Covid restrictions that have so disrupted the lives of our friends and neighbors.

    We are of a different 10%, that tiny percentage of the people in the United States who deliberately do not follow the dominant consumer culture. We enjoy life every day.

  2. Jeremy,
    Appreciate that you point out from time to time that personal life-style, on behalf of greater good has a place. Maybe not amounting to much physically but still, change begins with Self. What is surprising is how often those changes reveal deeper pleasures.

  3. “change needs to happen at different levels at once, supporting and reinforcing each other.”

    Thank you, Jeremy, for pointing this out: we, in the United States, are mostly in the top 10% of world income, and can thus do the most, individually and collectively, to build change world wide.

    I’m working up some related ideas, which I post on Wednesdays, if you are interested and have a moment.
    Best regards,

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